Sky-high success, feet firmly on the ground
Chuck Fipke, a modern tale of adventure and exploration North of 60 Mining News – July 1, 2022
Last updated 7/21/2022 at 2:48pm
It all began in 1991, when geologists Charles E. Fipke and Stewart Blusson found 81 small diamonds at Lac de Gras in Northwest Territories, Canada, marking the first diamond pipe discovery in North America.
While this groundbreaking discovery is often synonymous with the name Chuck Fipke – as it was the culmination of his relentless pursuit of elusive diamond indicator minerals for hundreds of kilometers from the Mackenzie River Valley eastward to their source near Lac de Gras – other key contributors in his quest were his associates, geologist Stewart Blusson, economic geologist Hugo Dummett, and University of Cape Town professor John Gurney.
Nonetheless, the epic success of this discovery, achieved on a shoestring budget through innovative science, ignited the greatest diamond rush in North American history and led to the formation of the Ekati diamond mine.
Born in Edmonton, Alberta, in 1946, his family came from meager means. Oldest of four, Fipke's mother began honing his adventurous spirit at a young age, allowing him to operate as he pleased – headstrong and curious.
While Fipke's father was often not in the picture, it did little to diminish his determination. While later things would settle for the family, and Fipke's father Ed would bring the family to British Columbia, Charles' passion for nature and life would only continue to flourish.
It was around this time that Fipke would find a love of horses.
Before he was even out of high school, he would own two horses, one of which would nearly kill him, fracturing his skull in three places.
Outside his ingenuity with geology, Fipke has kept a love of horses throughout his life and began an active career in racing horses since 1981. While wildly successful as a geologist, he is possibly even more successful at raising thoroughbreds.
Throughout his racing career, he has been accredited with 13 champion horses, with at least two finishing in the top five of the Kentucky Derby.
Fipke graduated from high school in Kelowna, BC, and enrolled at the University of British Columbia. With his father advising him that there were nine jobs available for every geophysicist who earned a degree, he kept that advice to heart and started off in that direction.
And much like his racing horses, once they got going, they were hard to stop, and as it was a required course for his degree, a lesson in rocks unearthed a talent for geology.
"Before I went to university, my little brother liked rocks, but I didn't really. You know, they were interesting but..." he told Trainer Magazine.
Rocks, he would soon learn, presented him with an intellectual challenge of discovery and the physical challenge of the hunt. For him, geology could unlock the secrets, billions of years old, of the Earth for anyone with the patience and gumption to find them.
It just so happens that geology found him first.
World traveler, ingenious geologist
Thirty-one years ago, there was no such thing as a Canadian diamond – as far as anyone knew. Diamonds mostly came from Australia, Botswana, South Africa, Namibia, and Russia.
The story behind the addition of Canada to the ranks of diamond-producing nations leads back to a tale of determination and desperation.
Fipke's 1991 discovery of diamonds in Canada's Northwest Territories started the largest staking rush in North America since George Carmack found gold in the Klondike a century earlier.
As a world traveler, Fipke started his career fresh out of the University of Columbia with a degree in geology in 1970.
Quickly signing on with mining company Kennecott Copper to look for gold and copper in Papua New Guinea, he was often dropped into the middle of a jungle by helicopter and hopefully picked up at the end of the day.
Oftentimes, the terrain was so rough that the chopper could not always land, leading to stories of Fipke leaping out of the helicopter as it hovered close enough to the ground.
In one tale, upon landing, he found himself face to face with 20 locals, arrows strung. Raising his arms, he slowly removed his vest and offered it to "the one who looked like the chief." By the time the helicopter returned, Fipke was in his underwear, holding a plethora of aboriginal goods that included tribal shields, bows and arrows, as well as fetishes.
"I've got an amazing collection of stuff," he was reported saying.
After stints in the Amazon, Australia, and South Africa, Fipke would go on to open a mineral separation laboratory in British Columbia in 1977. A year later, Superior Oil would hire him to go back into the field – but this time, not to look for metals but gems.
A couple of years prior, a geologist named John Gurney, working with Superior's money at the University of Cape Town, hypothesized that certain common minerals might reliably form alongside diamonds. Using an electron microprobe to analyze geological structures called kimberlite pipes it was discovered that the presence of chromite, ilmenite, and high-chrome low-calcium garnet did indeed predict a rich strike.
Examining a host of pipes in South Africa that had these so-called indicator minerals, he published his findings in a paper, which Fipke would find quite useful.
Hearing about Gurney's work on a tour of De Beers' Finsch Mine in South Africa, he quickly strove to understand indicator minerals – combining what he learned from Gurney's work with results coming out of Russian labs and his own skills in mineralogy; Superior Oil felt he was an apt choice to search for kimberlites northwest of Fort Collins, Colorado.
There he would find nearly half a dozen pipes, but like 98% of the kimberlite formations in the world, none of them were diamond-bearing.
But Fipke knew that 100 miles under those pipes was a craton – a thick, old chunk of continental plate where diamonds form. Kimberlite pipes are then created when magma bubbles up through a craton, expanding and cooling on its way up. If the craton has diamonds in it, the result is either a carrot-shaped, diamond-studded pipe reaching up to the surface or a wide, flat underground structure called a dike.
Fipke also knew that the craton underneath the pipes he had found ran all the way up the Rockies. With Superior's backing, he teamed up with a geologist and pilot named Stewart Blusson, formed Dia Met Minerals Ltd., and headed north.
By 1981, the two men were sampling the ground in Canada, eventually securing mining concessions on 80,000 square miles.
"It was just me and Stewart and a floatplane," Fipke told Wired. "We took all the supplies and all the samples in ourselves."
Fipke would later recall his time spent exploring, "It was just fun every day, most of the time when I'm working, it's not really work to me at all."
Even with that being said, Fipke's budget was so tight that often he would fly around in a plane by himself, zigzagging across the Northwest Territories over an 800-mile stretch of prospective land – if he'd brought an assistant, it would have used up more fuel and left him less weight to carry rock samples.
De Beers geologists – which at the time dominated the diamond market, mining roughly 70% of the world's diamonds – as it turned out, were already there searching for diamonds in Canada, relying on their own indicator mineral formulas.
But Fipke and Blusson surmised that the indicators De Beers found had, in fact, been dragged far from the kimberlite pipe eons ago by a passing glacier.
What they needed to do was look "upstream" for the point of origin. Boarding a helicopter, Fipke flew back and forth over the Arctic Circle, using a magnetometer to track variations in the magnetic field that would suggest kimberlite.
After thousands of miles, and hundreds of hours in the air, he found a promising site near Lac de Gras, a barren world of lakes and rock and muskeg a few hundred miles outside the Arctic Circle.
For eight years, Fipke surveyed without finding a single diamond. At this time, as Superior had abandoned the diamond business, Fipke was essentially on his own. Despite this, he discovered a diamond concentration at Lac de Gras of more than 60 carats per 100 tons – with about a quarter of the stones of good quality or better.
After six months of sampling, he went public. It was 1991, and he had found a kimberlite pipe with a concentration of 68 carats per 100 tons – the first Canadian diamonds ever found.
Shares of his company, Dia Met, would skyrocket from pennies to nearly $70 a share, so he partnered with mining giant Broken Hill Proprietary (now BHP Billiton) to get the diamonds out.
BHP opened the Ekati mine in 1998 and, just a year later, would sell $400 million worth of diamonds, making it the 4th largest diamond mine in the world at the time.
Soon Dia Met's 29% share of the mine was worth billions, and later Fipke would go on to sell a chunk to BHP for $687 million while retaining a 10% ownership in the mine, worth another $1 billion.
Far from living out of his car in the Northwest Territories, collecting samples to be baked in his oven back home, Fipke was now a billionaire.
Canada diamond legacy
From the initial Ekati discovery, in the resulting decades, numerous diamond mines have appeared throughout the Far North of Canada. From the Gahcho Kue project that opened in 2016 to the Diavik mine that got underway in 2003, just a few years after Ekati. It is abundantly evident that a wealth of these valuable stones can be found there.
With those major mines, there are at least half a dozen others that are operating or once operated throughout all of Canada. As far northeast as Nunavut and south in Ontario.
Although Fipke had found his fortune, later selling his company Dia Met to BHP Billiton, and retaining a 10% share of the mine, in 2014, he would finally sell off the remaining portion of his discovery.
"I'm not really a miner ... I'm an exploration geologist. This sale gives me more ability to do exploration," he told the Financial Post.
A statement that truly encompasses the attitude of Chuck Fipke, that despite his success, he never lost that determination he had as a child, and later after spending eight years searching for what could have possibly never been.
While he has continued exploring even in the later years of his life, owning mining projects in Morocco, Greenland, Canada, Angola, and Brazil, he has mainly spread his interests toward horses and by giving back through his philanthropic work.
Supporting future geologists with donations toward equipment and millions of dollars toward Alzheimer's research, it was actually his son that reminded Fipke that without help, he would not have been able to get where he is today.
"My son told me that we live in an apathetic society and what we need is someone to look up to," he told OkanaganLife.
That made Fipke remember his own role models, people who had, through hard work and determination, not to mention selfless generosity, inspired a young Chuck to challenge himself and ultimately give back.
"I was totally busted broke," he continued. "So I made an appointment with dean Walter Gage, asking him if there were any bursaries, scholarships, anything I could apply for."
With only two months left in the school year, the dean informed him that kind of funding was over, but then the dean himself did something that changed Fipke's life forever.
"He asked me how much I needed. I told him two or three hundred dollars," Fipke explained. "He opened his desk drawer and pulled out his personal cheque book. I would have nothing if it weren't for my education. I'm privileged to give back."
Throughout his storybook life, Fipke continues to uphold the true attitude of a geologist – that no matter how high you go, a geologist is firmly planted on the ground.
His financial and racing accomplishments aside, Fipke was awarded the Northern Miner's Mining Man of the Year and PDAC'S Prospector of the Year in 1992, the H.H. "Spud" Huestis Award for prospecting and mineral exploration in 1997, the Daniel C. Jackling Award for contributions to technical progress in mining, geology, and geophysics in 2004, the Robert M. Dreyer Award for outstanding achievement in applied economic geology in 2005, and finally was inducted into the Canadian Mining Hall of Fame in 2013, where he will be immortalized along with other pioneers of the North.